Saturday, January 31, 2009


I smell of blood. I only know this when I vacate the room in which everything smells of blood; in the lab, I smell fine.
Giovanni our butcher does not seem to notice the stench. He uses his arm as a paddle to mix the bucket of well preserved pig blood. It’s the key ingredients in Blood Sausage.

The macellaio proceeds to add the remaining ingredients: milk, pine nuts, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, and meat. If it wasn’t for the blood and meat, it could be a Christmas pudding.

“What kind of meat?” I ask.

“Bloody meat..” (but of course) “..brain, tongue, heart, kidneys.” (so much for my pudding)

The butcher’s two assistants sample the brew. They nod and smack in approval. I see Giovanni coming at me with the spoon; I feign my Sorrels need tying.

Our Sanguinacci Making Process begins:

Assistant 1 ties off one end of a pig intestine with string.

Macellaio ladles off the sanguinacci-sauce into a funnel that sits on top of the tied intestine; gently - not to puncture the casing - he massages the sauce down the tube. When the casing is full, Assistant 1 ties off the top end of the now full intestine and there it is – a very long blood sausage.

Assistant 2 is handed the long blood sausage and ties off sausage links. The completed sanguinacci is set aside to boil later.

Occasionally, as the sauce is pushed down, the casing breaks and you get.. indeed.. a bloody mess! Everyone laughs as they wipe themselves down from the red liquid; they use the opportunity to take a drink of the other red liquid and the process resumes.

When all the sauce has been distributed, the Sanguinacci links are taken outside to boil. Iris’ mother prepares tea, chocolate biscuits, and more wine for our break while Giovanni stands over the fire, carefully stirring the water and the day’s work that floats inside. He fishes out a sausage link, and like a proud father slices it for us to enjoy with our tea.

Friday, January 30, 2009

"I do it with love!"

In Gone With The Wind, Rex told Scarlet, “You can tell a lady by her hands.” In the Appennino Parmense Hills of Italy, you can tell a butcher by the same; he’s the one with the gashes on his.

Giovanni killed his first pig when he was 12; nowadays he regularly wins the valley’s annual Salami Nostrano Contest in Brunelli and is booked solid in the winter months when pigs are slaughtered. Giovanni’s forearms are proportionally large, his hands are even larger. There are a couple of permanent hematomas on his Popeye arms and countless painful looking scars on his massive fingers, including one that apparently went down to the bone as a chunk of meat is missing. The years of hard-knocks has created a master that today is more comfortable with a knife than most people are with their own toothbrush.

There are three types of butchers in Italy: One that does the pig slaughtering, one that does the meat cutting, and one that does the meat cooking. Giovanni is all three. The herbs and spices he uses for his cured meats, sausages, “cakes” and “cheeses” has made him a recognized and much desired macellaio.

And then there’s me.. on the other end of the spectrum, a near vegetarian, a green fan. I love making salads -every bit of it- from buying the freshest produce at the Farmer’s Market, to coming up with the perfect vinaigrette. For the first few days after our pigs were brought back in sections, I was nauseated by the intensity of the smell and the enormity of the meat, guts, and yes – gore. Even while sleeping, I’d envision the bloody pieces encircling me. There was no escape.

And yet I couldn’t deny Giovanni’s local fame as excited neighbors came to witness him work. Nor could I discount the genuine sounds of “MMmm!” when they sampled sausage stuffing or what was to be head-cheese. From the first day of my arrival, Gian-Luca and Iris declared how lucky I was to be here at the farm at this time of year. Seeing Giovanni , the macellaio perform his art, I began to see the truth in that statement.

“So what is it that makes you so good? “ I asked Giovanni through a translator.

With sincere warmth in his face he replied, ”Faccio con amore!”

I should have known.

Is there really any other answer?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lessons From The Pigs

One day I’m feeding four pigs their morning breakfast of flakes and food waste, and the next day they’re being hauled off in a truck.

One day I’m watching the big pig bully the little pig over the breakfast of flakes and food waste, and the next day they’re all returned back to the farm – equally in pieces.

In the States, we mostly don’t like to think of our ultimate demise; even witnessing pigs become pork was difficult for me. So I’ve thought about what the four pigs could teach and I gathered four lessons:

1) Enjoy where you’re at. As long as your heart is there, home is there - even if you’re standing in your own sh--.
2) Love what you eat. Pigs don’t get indigestion..they adore it all.
3) Be kind to your family and neighbor. In the end, we all end up equally the same.

And the last one occurred to me when I witnessed the smiles and content looks of a full belly at the dinner table after a long day prepping the meat and finally enjoying the evening’s meal of blood sausage.

4) If possible, give something of your life so that you may live eternally through the joy of another.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sculoa Bus

Walking along the muddy road on the way to the neighboring dairy farm, I spotted two children on their way home from school. Like me, they were bundled against the cold and like me were sporting backpacks. The bambinos scattered away and I was left bemused that this tiny and remote village of Roncole would support a school system. Till now I had only seen dogs and farm keepers along the street.

I continued on my journey to load my own backpack with the three appointed bottles of milk when around the snow embankment speeds a vehicle. There is a large black inscription “Scuola Bus” on the front of the pristine white van and underneath shines the internationally known symbol of excellence: Mercedes!
Damn the Italians do it right.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Down In The Basement

Iris repeated her instructions because apparently my blank stare said it all.

“You take the magnet. You take the ashes. You pick up metal.” And with that, she handed me an Egg-McMuffin size magnet, a small hand shovel, a sifting bucket, and pointed to the wheel-barrel full of ash.

I’m in the basement. I love this place. One gets to the basement by moving a squeky big wooden door at the top level and winding down a stone staircase that slants to the left. The walls are the same stone and also leaning. The bowed ceiling is low especially at what seem to be key spots where I typically forget to duck. The basement has several rooms, connected by a floor that is in most part missing. Wooden planks are used to prevent one from falling into several large holes.

It smells divine down there, of apples and a wine barrel. Most of the rooms are cool, except for the room I am in which holds a furnace – hence the ashes. Next to me are worker’s jackets an assortment of boots, stacked firewood and old stone.

With magnet in one hand and small shovel in another, I begin to sift through the soot hoping to attract metal. And metal I did attract..the metal in the shovel! With each pass over the ash filled shovel, the shovel swung its way to the magnet and blew soot in my face. Surely there is a trick to the metal extraction that I was missing.

But with the thought, something in last night’s tasty dinner of beef marrow soup did not agree with me. *Urgently*, I dropped everything and made way to the bathroom two stories up. I skipped along the planks, passed the storage of preserves and wine bottles, bumped my head on the overhanging ceiling, rushed up the slanted staircase, opened the big wooden door, untied and discarded my Sorel snow shoes, ran up another flight of stairs, peeled off the long jacket, pulled down the insulated pants, and as I was approaching the final long-underwear layer.. suffice it to say.. I ran out of time.

Sitting on the blessed toilet, I smiled on catching sight of the other porcelain bowl to the left of me . Finally, it was clear to me why the old homes loved their bidets.

Monday, January 26, 2009

2 Petzls, 13 Chickens, and a Hundred and Seventeen Loaves of Bread

Before I left for Italy, I asked my farm host Iris if there was anything in particular that I should bring.

The reply: “A flashlight.”

This was not the kind of answer that gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I thought about the significance of this statement for days but it took me less than 24 hours at Casa Lanzarotti to be clear on why one is friends with his flashlight (in my case, an ultra-light-weight adjustable Petzl.. thank you Stephen).

My first Italian Petzl employment was chasing our 13 chickens back into their coop for the night. Broom in hand, Petzl on forehead, I ran around at dusk yelling “here chicken chicken”, ensuring all had returned safely. If the count wasn’t thirteen (“counting chickens” is mandatory but turns out - not easy), the Petzl came in handy as the sky quickly becomes dark.

My second Italian Petzl exercise was making bread. Perhaps you are like me and presume that bread baking occurs indoors – say in the clean lab I wrote of earlier. Clearly then we are both mistaken. This is why my bread that comes out of a Kitchen-Aid bread-maker tastes nothing like the bread that comes out of an outdoor stone wood-burning oven.

There are three steps in making bread: kneading, rising, and baking. At Casa Lanzarotti, while Iris kneads and sets the dough to rise, Gian-Luca heats the outdoor stone wood-burning oven with a wood-burning fire (of all things). The heating process takes a couple of hours as does the kneading and rising.
The dough is separated into 39 loaves while the outdoor stone wood-burning oven is cleaned of its fire, soot and ashes. The oven accommodates 13 loaves which bake 25 minutes; the next set of 13 bakes 30 minutes and the last set of 13 bakes 35 minutes (this is where conventional ovens are smug.. their temperature doesn’t cool with time.)

On Bread Making Day, this entire process is repeated THREE times! It is no wonder then, that the last 39 loaves are baked in the dark (hence the Petzl). It is also no wonder then, that on Farmer’s Market Day, 117 loaves are spoken for by early morning.

(BTW, Gian-Luca wears a Petzl)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Of Mice And Bread

“What are we doing today?” I anxiously asked my farm host Iris over breakfast tea.

“Making bread."

My romantic visions of Italian pane were temporarily halted when she added, “Only we have to clean the lab first and it’s not nice work.”

The “lab”, as Casa Lanzarotti affectionately calls it, is an industrial kitchen built in the wing of the farm house. Outside are century old stone walls; inside are stainless steel counters and enormous mixers.

On walking in, it became clear to me why cleaning the lab wouldn’t be nice work. It may be a high-end kitchen, but it still sits on a farm and farms have mice. Apparently, so did our lab!

During the next three plus hours, I kept thinking of what I would be entering in the Facebook status line which asks: “What are you doing right now?”

I’d answer, “I’m picking up mouse poop.”

An hour or so later, “What are you doing right now?”

I’d answer, “I’m picking up mouse poop.”

And in the final entry, “What are you doing right now?”

Just to snaz it up a bit, I’d answer, “I’m picking up mouse poop!” (notice the author inserted a punctuation of emphasis)

After all the poop was picked, the contaminated flour discarded, the tubs, dishes, and utensils sanitized, the counters wiped, the appliances washed, and the floor mopped , then – and only then - did we begin the bread making process.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

First Night On The Farm

It smells like a farm.. but in a sweet way. There’s a certain moisture in the air. The neighboring creek is loud due to recent rains. Inside the farm home, baskets of herbs, onions, and oranges greet me at the doorway. Dirty work boots and jackets line the entry. Two cats scurry away.

My room is on the second floor . It’s cold as it’s been unoccupied and the wood burner hasn’t been sparked.

Down at the ground level, Iris, Gian-Luca and I make our acquaintances in a warm “dining room”; we are seated at a wooden table surrounded by canisters of walnuts and dried herbs. I’m drinking tea. Iris is having a late dinner consisting of a bowl of cereal (some things cross all boarders). I’m told I’ve arrived at a festive time. They try to keep the upcoming week quiet for news is likely to attract many eager visitors, both local and from out-of-town. My fortuitous timing?.. The annual slaughter and meat packing of their four wild pigs!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Welcome to Italy

After traveling thousands of miles by car, plane, bus, and train, I arrive only to get stuck in an elevator!

It is night. Snow covers areas of the terrain. I am making my way up from the lower train platform to the ground floor, packed in the box with my laptop, backpack, and two large luggage bags in a tiny all-glass elevator compartment (like the kind you see on the outside of a hotel). My hosts, Iris and Gian-Luca, clearly see me through all the glass and wave. I arrive at the top to meet them but the door doesn’t open. After numerous failed attempts at opening the elevator door, going back down, going further up, rebooting, resetting, and any other button combination possible, I’m finally instructed by my gesturing hosts to hit the SOS button.

An Italian voice echoes inside the tiny chamber while my hosts, still on the outside, are yelling back attempting to communicate our situation to the voice inside.

Soon there are four Italians running around me in the elevator, speaking enthusiastically, waving their arms, trying various keys on the door, hitting the door, digging into the adjacent control box, and then there’s me, inside, laughing at the spectacle.

To be honest, I’m not sure what combination finally did the trick but it was my host Gian-Luca, (not the Trenitalia mechanics) who eventually got the door to open.

“What was wrong?” I asked Gian-Luca later.

His reply: “Trenitaila did not pay elevator utility. Welcome to Italy.”